X-Com: Enemy Unknown may have slipped under your radar upon its release last year amidst blockbusters like Halo 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Developer Firaxis’ pedigree, specifically the massively popular Civilization franchise, should assuage any doubts you have about this re-imagining of the original PC classic. X-Com: Enemy Unknown is an uncompromising strategy game, currently available for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. In fact, at Boston’s own PAX East conference in March, Firaxis was on hand to show off the first glimpse of the upcoming iOS port of the title. Console gamers take note—rarely do you get to experience strategy titles as impressive in scope as X-Com: Enemy Unknown.
You are the commander of the X-Com project, a unified global organization defending the world from extraterrestrial threats. In being the commander of a global initiative, you have a full plate: you must build and design a home base, order and command ground troops, and generally mull over tough choices that will alter the outcome of your campaign. Every nation needs your help, but it’s up to you to decide what sacrifices to make for the greater good.
By merging two distinct gameplay styles, X-Com: Enemy Unknown (henceforth referred to as X-Com) draws you into its world and will keep you up past bedtime hours. There are no higher stakes than the invasion and destruction of Earth by malevolent aliens, right? This is a strategy game through and through, and in two distinct flavors. Developer Firaxis brilliantly combines the thrill of commanding a squad of soldiers on the battlefield, and the overarching struggle to keep the whole world from disorder and destruction.
You’ll level up troops, technologies, guns, aircraft, and more. Typically, you will build additions to your base, spend money on research, and then, while you wait for projects to be completed, deploy a tactical team to combat global attacks. You’ll put together a crack squad of snipers, medics, support, and assault troopers who you’ll grow fond of throughout the campaign. You’ll send them to recover downed alien ships, rescue diplomats, disarm bombs, and save civilians. X-Com is light on story, though a surprisingly personal narrative emerges through your own wins, loses, and catastrophes.Measure twice, cut once—X-Com: Enemy Unknown demands thoughtful strategy, or face dire consequences.
The game’s audio and visuals suit the style and world excellently. The score, especially, is strikingly catchy and appropriately swells and sweeps, helping cement the grand scope of the drama of Earth’s darkest days. Your base, as you develop and expand, is beautifully realized in a cross-section view that bears a charming resemblance to a bustling ant farm. Enemies are varied and animate well, and do a great job of keeping your pulse racing throughout the long campaign.
X-Com is a challenging game, but hardly unfair. Because you are essentially managing and organizing, no amount of shooting skills or controller prowess will compensate for poor decision-making. This serves to escalate the tension throughout the game’s 40-hour campaign. Poor choices will snowball into spectacular chaos, but part of the fun is seeing if you can recover from the mistakes you’ve made as you stumble through the game your first time.
There are plenty of incentives to replay X-Com, from multiple difficulties to radical modifiers that change the way you approach the game. Notably, “Ironman” mode is unlocked from the very start of the game, and limits players to one save that constantly updates—if you lose troops in battle or fail to save panicked nations, tough luck. Playing the game on normal difficulty, without “Ironman” mode, proved challenging without being frustrating.
Multiplayer adds a twist to the single-player mode’s squad-based gameplay, as you can mix and match a team of human soldiers and aliens and take on competitors online. The squad you’ve built and leveled in single-player does not carry over to multiplayer, though you have the benefit of experimenting with different squad formations without affecting your single player campaign. Though X-Com is already five months old, it is still easy to find ranked matches and quick matches.
X-Com is a bit of a hidden gem, and has so much content gamers of any skill and interest will find something to delight them. You will be absorbed by your duties as commander of X-Com. Firaxis has constructed a great game, and X-Com is worth a try even if this is your first foray into the strategy genre.